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Across all genres, there are some hallmarks of great hosts who really match the moment… and the medium. Plus, a bit about Sinéad.
Welcome to Dispatch #46 of The Audio Insurgent.
It’s that time of year when everyone starts a call with, “So, will I see you at Podcast Movement?”
Yes, I will be attending Podcast Movement in Denver in two weeks. In fact, I’m speaking on a panel Tuesday morning at 9:45am.
I suggested this last year, and some thought I wasn’t serious, but I am. The only reason I attend conferences is to see and meet people. If you are going, and you read this newsletter (or whatever it is), please say hi. If you see me around or walking in the hallway, just walk up and introduce yourself. Seriously. A number of people said hello last year and it led to delightful conversations.
I thought about doing a meet up for readers like I did in London this spring, but the conference is too hectic as it is, so let’s just meet organically. If you are in Denver, don’t be shy. Meeting readers will be the highlight of each day.
I will be sending out another dispatch next week with things to look for (and avoid) at Podcast Movement, so watch out for that.
About this dispatch… I take a lot of inspiration for dispatch topics from conversations I have. If I end up talking about the same thing a few times, I wonder if it is a candidate to discuss here. Today’s is exactly that…about what makes someone a good host.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: THE CHALLENGES AND THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC SERVICE RADIO] This past spring I was invited to speak at Radiodays Europe in Prague (which was a terrific gathering with really infectious energy). While there, I sat down with Andrew Davies of the ABC for an interview for the EBU (European Broadcast Union) about public service broadcasters and how they fit into the next chapter of audio, platforms, and digital media. It was a pretty wide ranging conversation–worth noting that this was recorded a few months before Spotify completed all their realignments, so there are some slightly out-of-sync references.
On the day they sent me this to review, my wife was hanging out in my office. I played it while doing some other things. I looked over a few minutes later, and my wife had fallen asleep in her chair. So…not a ringing endorsement for excitement, but audio nerds will find it interesting!
Very kind of the EBU to make this widely available. If your partner, children, or roommates are having trouble sleeping, and are as interested in digital media and public service broadcasting as my wife apparently is, feel free to call me in.
[TODAY’S THING: HOSTINESS] Lately a few clients and collaborators have asked a version of “What makes someone a good podcast host?”
We tried to answer a similar question during my early years at NPR and came up with a concept called “hostiness.” Looking back at those definitions, it was much more about how we viewed them, with “them” being the talent in question and “we” being the gatekeepers of public radio. An example was that an NPR host should be “smart.” Okay. But who gets to decide “smart” and according to what standard? That gets tricky fast. The other results are equally a bit cringey in hindsight as well, but understanding the inherent, consistent qualities of good hosts is a perennial question. And the answers for podcasting “hostiness” are (and should be) different than for those hosting on other platforms and media.
Back in December, I wrote a post about the words we use to describe the ideal host of a new podcast, which is different. The answers are bespoke to that show concept and more of a requirement sheet for sitting in that specific chair. That dispatch was about how to be unique.
Today’s question looks at it from the opposite angle: what about all successful podcast hosts? What do they all have in common? And what is necessary for someone to succeed as a podcast host?
Sometimes this conversation rises out of curiosity; sometimes out of a design process. Other times, it comes up in conversation about talent in other media (a tv presenter, print journalist, author, or radio host, for example) looking to try hosting a podcast. They’ve been very successful doing something else, but how do we know if they would do well hosting a podcast?
The first question should be–is there a difference? If someone is a deeply talented writer, or has a golden voice or charismatic personality on television… is that enough to think they can succeed hosting a podcast?
The answer to those first questions are “yes,” there is a difference. And “no,” just because someone is deeply talented as a storyteller, personality, or magnetic presence in other media–it doesn’t inherently mean we can assume they can host a podcast.
That said, that doesn’t mean they can’t. And the ones that are great podcast hosts have three things in common. It doesn’t matter if you have been hosting TV for 30 years or won a Pulitzer or have flocks of fans to your radio show, without these three things, you are going to have a frustrating experience in podcasting.
So, those three things are, in descending order of importance:
Passion. You have to be really, really excited to tell these stories or have these conversations. I’m not talking about “rah rah” cheerleader type excitement. Passion-driven, organic ultra-enthusiasm. It has to be genuine; it has to be personal.
Every once in a while I’m brought into a meeting with someone, often a famous someone, who is interested in hosting a podcast but is having trouble identifying a subject/topic–or sometimes they have been asked to host a podcast and they want help figuring out if it is the right thing for them to do. I start off those conversations by asking them one question: “What are the things you care about most in the world? The things that you are so excited to talk about that you would do it for free?” Not that anyone is actually asking them to work for free, but what is the thing that they really, really, really, genuinely want to talk about. The stories and ideas for which the passion comes first. The type of thing where you will talk at dinner that evening about what you learned, explored, and shared in that conversation. What’s the conversation where you want to be vulnerable, where you want to take risks, where you are happy to try something new. If you tap into that passion, it is more important than your level of experience, the “quality” of your voice, your Q score… almost anything.
And listeners? While they may not be able to articulate it, they can spot a phony right away. And when the passion the host expresses is authentic, they can feel that too.
When I was taking notes for this dispatch, I came close to calling this “caring”--a host has to legitimately care about what they are talking about. However, “passion” goes a few levels deeper. A great podcast host is never just going through the motions or solely relying on their professional skills behind a mic–the work is a part of them.
Curiosity. A great podcast host is curious. If they are an expert, they are still open to learning from others. If they aren’t an expert, they see that as an attribute rather than a deficit and embrace their desire to learn (and see it as something they have in common with the audience). Curiosity has a lot in common with passion in that (a) you can’t fake curiosity just like you can’t fake passion and (b) the audience can feel its presence or absence. They not only ask questions to learn, but to test ideas and perspectives.
A curious podcast host isn’t out to impress the guest or the audience with the depth of their knowledge or the prowess of their beautifully crafted questions–they want to know more and are grateful to the guest for unlocking a story, idea, experience, or facet of information. The conversation is about learning, understanding, going deeper or in surprising directions, it is never about them. Which brings us to the third quality…
Generosity. This is a harder concept to convey, so I hope this makes sense. A host is generous when they make room in the episode for others. It isn’t all about them. Instead, they give center stage to what is being discussed and who (besides them) is speaking. They show generosity towards the guests or interviewees by making space for their voice, ideas, and experiences. They show generosity to their co-host. The host doesn’t need to be the center of attention, because their role is to give themselves permission to wonder, out loud and ask questions to understand, learn more, or challenge what they think they know.
I am guessing that more than a few of you want to call bullshit on these three. You will point out that there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. I’m sure we can all name hosts that no one would define as “generous.” Sure, true. There are those who define their brand with their open disdain for curiosity and generosity.
When I tested the “passion, curiosity, and generosity” construct out on a few people last week, every single person mentioned Joe Rogan as an exception. I disagree. I don’t think that’s correct. If you listen to the show (and most people who criticize Rogan rarely, if ever, actually listen to his show), Joe is actually a very curious and generous host. I think most of his critics fault him for being too open and providing too much generosity without balanced skepticism or scrutiny to what’s being shared.
Yet beyond that example, there are plenty of podcasts, some quite successful, that revel in their incuriosity. If it works for them and their listeners, fine. But it is kinda like smokers who smoke because they claim to “enjoy” it, even though most know it could kill them too. But I just have trouble including those people in the group of hosts who are moving our medium forward. I think I’m just done giving those people much more attention or oxygen.
[CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, PLEASE: BLOOD STAINED MEN AND SINÉAD] A little over a week ago my wife and I snuck away for a few days in upstate New York while my son was at summer camp. It was the first time the two of us had taken a trip together with only the two of us since before the pandemic. We stopped along the way for a break and noticed an odd sight: a bunch of protestors wearing white hats and white clothing with bright red stains around the crotch. They were carrying signs protesting circumcision. A quick search uncovered that this was a group called Blood Stained Men who stage protests around the country against male circumcision. They were peaceful and not causing any problems–but it was something you don’t see too often, especially at a sleepy upstate gas station.
I was surprised by my reaction to them: I found them difficult to trust and didn’t want to accept that this was legit.
I read through their site and combed through dozens of pages of Google links. I was convinced this was a stunt or an art project or something disingenuous. Or perhaps this was really just something anti-Semetic or anti-Muslim disguised as a protest to protect children. For the life of me, I can’t find anything wrong with their efforts. Yet, the more I looked, the more distrustful I became. Over the past two weeks, I just kept digging.
As far as I can tell, they are just a group of people who would really prefer that we stop circumcising boys. Some of them have been involved in this group for decades–and they aren’t the only touring anti-circumcision protest group. You can see here if they are coming to a town near you! Odd, sure, but I love odd. I want to live in a country that makes space for all kinds of oddness.
But I was surprised by my unwillingness to believe them.
The day before we left on the trip, we all got word that Sinéad O’Connor had died. Her death hit me like a slow-moving freight train. At first, it was a raised eyebrow at a breaking news alert. Then, as the evening wore on, it began to sink in. She wasn’t my favorite artist, by far, but she was someone my own age who made music I loved and created it while making really uncompromising choices. Like me at the same age, some of those choices were right, and others not-quite-as-right. As I was packing for the trip, I was thinking of what to bring along to read. I reached out to my unread book shelf and pulled down Sinéad’s autobiography, Rememberings. I purchased it the week it came out two years ago, but it has been sitting unread since, for no particular reason.
I will tell you, it is a really strange experience to read this right after her death. It has some surreal elements to it–stories that you aren’t sure if she sees as literal happenings… or not… and maybe it doesn’t even matter. The writing is a bit rough and raw in parts, delicious and poetic in others. It was also unclear if Sinéad understood how vulnerable she was in her telling of these stories. But I also wonder if she was aware of how vulnerable she was throughout her career.
Yet as I sat reading the chapters, it seemed very obvious that Sinéad was aware of how many in the world unfortunately viewed her: crazy, unstable, “that bald woman who tore up a picture of the pope on SNL.”
But when thinking back on her life and career, what shocks me is how right she was. She spoke out about many things and I hope history will remember that those who dismissed her disliked her for being outspoken, that was her crime. She was 26 the night she tore up the Pope’s photo and did so after five years of repeatedly committing the crime of standing up for what she believed in. At 26, I could barely do my own laundry, let alone take on the weight of such a deliberate, precise, and impactful protest.
Those who canceled her afterwards never bothered to ask what she was protesting against that night–or what the “real enemy” was that she challenged viewers to fight against. Those who canceled her–and even those who supported her–assumed she was protesting against the Catholic Church and the long history of sexual abuse by clergy. Maybe that’s right. But few bothered to consider that the specific photo she tore up was a picture of the pope that had hung in her family home for years–the home where she was brutally and repeatedly abused by her mother throughout her childhood. Sinéad tried to seek help, even from the church, to no avail. When her mother had died, seven years before the SNL appearance, Sinéad took down that photo and saved it… until she brought it out on stage with her at SNL and shredded it live on national television. Was the meaning embedded in the photo’s subject–or was it in the person who owned and displayed the photo while beating her child with a frying pan?
When that happened, people refused to believe it was a legitimate protest. They thought it was a stunt–a way to garner publicity–a way to seek attention. A crazy person acting out.
Perhaps it was easier to write her off as a kook than to believe in her.
I’m sure the book isn’t meant to serve as a last testament, though oddly, it is a beautiful one.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.